29 October 2005

A Theory of Driving Cultures

I mentioned the crazy driving in Dubai before, and I have now formed a theory to explain the phenomenon.

I have decided that most people (there are exceptions) don't drive badly per se, rather this is a place where driving cultures collide. These cultures are diametrically opposed to each other and derive from the vastly different infrastructures of the countries where people learned to drive. So you get drivers from the sub-continent who are used to terrible road conditions, potholes and non-existent curbs; who therefore don't have any lane discipline, instead using the road space as efficiently as possible even if that means making four lanes out of three; and who consider road signs and traffic lights optional. On the other side of the spectrum you have Europeans who are genetically imprinted with the traffic rules handbook and who are used to being fined large amounts of money for any infringements of the law.

A variation of this culture clash is the European versus the American systems of over- and undertaking, which are incompatible. And amongst all this potential for chaos you have Arab drivers who routinely break the speed limit because they factor the cost of fines into the annual re-registration fee for their car, who seem to have a different understanding of road curtesy and who think nothing of making use of the hard shoulder to avoid a traffic queue. All this coupled with the atrocious local traffic situation and short-sighted infrastructure planning has seen Dubai's roads become an increasingly frustrating place to be, with accidents and jams making journeys impossibly long.

Statistics fromDubai's General Department of Traffic quoted in today's Emirates Today newspaper mention that while a third of all fatal accidents in Dubai last year were caused by UAE nationals, only one fifth of the dead were UAE nationals. The head of traffic safety, Khalfan M Al Barwani, pointed out that most of the drivers are young men, and that most of the accidents were due to speeding. Recently a driver was arrested after doing 200kph without a driving license.

24 October 2005

So You Need a Crane?

That'll cost you...

It's hard to get hold of a crane in Dubai, unless you steal it from one of the endless building sites (and that'll get you deported, so don't). If you want to hire one, you'll have to wait for it for anything between 6 to 14 month, according to an article in 7 Days. That's because it's not just local hire companies buying up all available equipment coming into the country, but Omanis, Qataris and Bahrainis coming here to try and fulfill their huge building plans. Prices for mobile cranes has gone up 30% this year.

20 October 2005

Ramadan Working Hours

During Ramadan working hours are officially reduced for everyone, although that is not necessarily the reality for most. And there are endless discussions and complaints.

The theory is that during Ramadan working hours should be shorter to allow fasting Muslims time for their prayers and to prepare for Iftar (breaking of the fast, a big social event every evening after sunset), as well as addressing the fact that someone who abstains from drink and food all day is less productive.

To keep things simple working hours are officially reduced for everyone for the whole fasting month, although in reality this results in a) lots of people still working long hours because their bosses don't allow proper breaks, and b) complete chaos where opening times are concerned because some shops let their workers have Ramadan work hours and some don't and some close because Ramadan daytime shopping is much reduced.

Then there are complaints of slacking because of the shortened hours, which are countered by fasters by pointing out that they have to get up before sunrise for Sohoor (last meal before the fast begins) and need to sleep in the afternoon to make up for getting up at 4 am.

Unfortunately for Stuart it's all pretty academic. The European and US businesses he interacts with have a hard time understanding that Friday is a holiday here, never mind remembering when Ramadan starts.

17 October 2005

The Price of Looking Good

"UAE national women drive up price of abayas" - a headline that encompasses so many of the pre-conceptions and realities of local culture.

Traditionally the point of the abaya, an ankle-length black cloak worn by women in this region of the Arab world, is to hide the female form as the Koran describes (although this is open to interpretation, as witnessed by the many different forms of dress in the Muslim world). In the UAE the abaya is considered national dress, as is the dishdash for men. So many working women consider wearing it as a suit substitute when they attend meetings with local companies, even if they wouldn't wear it for religious reasons.

What was once a shapeless cloak has turned into a fashion item, with designer-abaya fashion houses springing up (and marking their designs with logos on the outside of the abaya - what would Naomi Klein have to say about this?) and boutiques lined with rails of black items like goth shops that only sell one outfit.

The main way to individualise an abaya is to apply embroidery, mostly along the edges, but sometimes all over and combined with lacing and applique. Then there is the shape of the item itself, which, according to Fatma Abdi Mohammed, a local abaya designer quoted in 7 Days newspaper, is tending to be tighter and more form-fitting, specially round the waist. This is called the French design. All this illustrates the shift in local society which is trying to adapt to the fact that so many of its children are exposed to Western ways and still try to hold on the traditional aspects of their culture.

14 October 2005

Naime's Favourite Lemon Cooler

A great drink courtesy of the Noodle House.

Take: 1 handful of ice cubes

some fresh mint leaves

freshly pressed lemon juice

sugar syrup to taste

some water

Blend ice cubes, mint leaves and lemon juice as well as sugar syrup in an electric blender till well crushed. Add a little water. Drink.

13 October 2005


It's that time of year where we start turning our flat in to a mini-boutique hotel, the time of visitors and trying to avoid double-bookings.

It's always nice to go to our normal haunts with someone who has not been to Dubai before. Their reactions remind me what an exotic place this is to live in, it reminds me of our own reactions on our first visit and makes me realise again how much I enjoy living here. Naime is an old hand at Dubai, of course, she just shuttles between Satwa with visits to the tailor and shopping for real fakes in Karama, occasionally breaking with a bit of relaxation by the pool.



But Maria is here for the first time, so we are showing off to her with a day at the beach club, all azure water and palm trees with great service; evening drinks at the Madinat, gazing at the colour spectacle playing across the sail of the Burj-al-Arab; and lastly a visti to the Skyview Bar at the Burj itself, with a splendid lunch and more splendid views of the Jumeirah Palm in the making.

Later in the week we have a flying change as Naime and Maria leave and Stuart's parents arrive - all in the same night. We are geting really good at finding car parking at the airport...

10 October 2005

Blacklists for Bad Employers?

The latest organisation to get involved to help improve workers' conditions is the Indian Government.

One would have thought that in the absence of labour organisations and in the light of the fact that most of the labourers in Dubai are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh that the consulates would have an active role to play in representing their citizens' interests. But it is only now that the Indian Embassy has spoken out to state that the company involved in the strike and blockade of Sheikh Zayed Rd by unpaid workers last month is going to be banned from recruitment in India. This means that for a limited amount of time (six months or more, how long is unclear) this company will not be able to recruit Indian workers and will be refused consular services such as attestation of documents, according to Emirates Today and 7 Days newspapers.

The embassy is also overseeing the payment of arrears to the workers, although two months wages will still be held back by the company "to prevent the workers from absconding" according to the company quoted in 7 Days.

08 October 2005

A New Discovery

Wandering round the Madinat brings new surprises every time.

This time, in our attempt to amble away from the shisha-smoking Iftar crowds we came upon a secluded bar overlooking a canal, with wind towers all round. No other customers were there to occupy the seats, so we chose a huge sofa that held all three of us, and whiled away the evening sipping mineral water and chatting. A waiter with impeccable timing ensured that our glasses were regularly topped up, and there was no piped music or loud chatter to disturb our night-time idyll. Just stars above, candles on the tables and calm.


The place: Segreto

06 October 2005

Revealed at Last: Karama's Real Fakes!

Shopping for real fake designer goods is a popular pastime for visitors and residents alike. You can get Gucci bags, RayBan sunglasses, Von Dutch t-shirts and Rado watches, all at prices closer to Woolworth than Rodeo Drive.

These sales are done extremely surreptitiously, as the local authorities frown upon counterfeit stuff, and there are frequent raids. Usually we are asked if we are interested in buying watches or bags, and then are shunted into the back of a shop, into a small room upstairs or a cubby hole hidden behind some convincing looking shelving. In this case we were in a tiny shop in the middle of Karama shopping centre, where the proprietor conjured watches from the most unlikely hiding places: fake drawers in display cabinets, innocent looking bags hung up along the walls for sale, at one point he even pulled them from inside a tissue box.


Usually we are not allowed to take any photos, for obvious reasons, but at one point all the shop keepers had gone off to find more watches to satisfy Naime's discerning taste, and I was able to take a shot.

05 October 2005


Ramadan is upon us again and the newspapers are full of introductory articles explaining rules and background, running through the Five Pillars of Islam and generally explaining things for us foreigners.

It's been interesting to have a Muslim friend here (Naime, who is an old school mate from secondary school) this year who is sharing her perceptions of the local customs and how they compare to Turkey and the German Turkish community she grew up in. The most interesting tidbit of information so far has been that for a long time German Muslims would start Ramadan on the same day rather than observing separate starting times as is usual here for Shiites and Sunnis. Apparently numbers were not large enough to warrant separate celebrations. As Muffadal (a colleague of Stuart's) explained it, Sunnis start Ramadan when someone has actually observed the new moon, whereas Shiites begin on the new moon, i.e. just before the moon becomes visible. They determine this date through calculation of moon phases.

Naime was surprised at the way eating is handled during Ramadan, specially the habit of curtaining off areas in hotels and closing the blinds in restaurants so food consumption is invisible to the public. In Turkey, specially in the cities, restaurants are open as usual, and eating and drinking in public is not frowned upon (actually, it is a little more than frowned upon here, as public eating can incur a fine). I have heard the same from a friend who lived in Cairo.

03 October 2005

Diving Part 1

Today we finally got started on our diving course.

We had already gone through most of a diving course with SSI in the UK, but never got round to finishing as it would have meant diving in the chilly murk of Peterborough Reservoir, or finding a - rare - SSI school in France. So when we came here we thought it'd be a great way to spend a hot summer, getting wet and cooling down in the waters of the Gulf.

Al Boom Diving School is one of the many places offering diving training the PADI way. They are based on Al Wasl Rd where they have a shop and a training pool for learners. To start with we did some theory, most of which was a refresher for us, and then we got to put on our kit to learn how to be safe underwater. The most dangerous thing that can happen when diving is to run out of air, so a lot of the training is concerned with teaching what to do if you have air problems. We learned how to drop our weights and ascend safely, how to share air with our diving buddy (you always dive with a partner who makes sure your kit is ok and helps out in case of problems) and what to do if you dislodge your mask or regulator (the breathing apparatus).

There is a lot to learn to start with so we were glad that we had already done most of it before. Next we will dive in real open water in Dubai, and then to qualify we have to take a theoretical test and take a final dive in Fujeirah next weekend.

02 October 2005

Musandam Boat Trip

The view is of the sun setting over the mountains lining the Strait of Hormuz, colours soft and pale after a hot and harsh day. Winter is coming, time to get out of town!

As a treat for the hard-working DIFX staff and their family we were invited to a dhow trip around the fjords (yes, really! They call it the Norway of the Middle East - except for the snow and the conifer forests and the ice cold water and the 6 months of darkness, and...) of Musandam, a tiny Omani enclave on the Northern tip of the Arabian peninsula. We had been meaning to come up here before (but never made it), as it is known to be a great winter weekend getaway for Dubaians.


Musandam Beach View

We decided to make it a weekend and booked a room in the Golden Tulip Inn in Khasab. After the usual fun encounter at the Omani and UAE border posts - where you have to pay to leave the county - we arrived just in time to get on the boat in the dusty little harbour. After that it was one breathtaking surprise after another: Majestically craggy mountains sloping unhindered into the sea; dolphins chasing our bow wave, occasionally cutting the water as they come up for air; an old British fort glued precariously to the hill on Telegraph Island, the location for the first telegraph cable connection to India; the most remote fishing village ever, only accessible by boat, crowded into a gap in the cliffs.


Our Lovely Boat

After meandering through a series of islands and inlets we eventually stopped to go snorkelling. Stuart and I could try out our recently (as in yesterday) acquired diving kit - snorkel, flippers and all - which we bought in anticipation of our soon-to-be-completed diving qualification. Near the rocks we saw blue fish, black fish, turquoise and yellow fish, neon-bright fish, orange fish with brown stripes (must get a fish identification book), and some dangerous looking sea urchins.




Everyone Enjoyed Themselves in Their Own Way

Lunch was a feast of salads, curries, fish and meat grilled on a barbecue crammed into the stern platform of the boat. The dhow had an upper and a lower deck laid out with cushions and rugs so we could all flounce about once we had stuffed ourselves. There was more swimming, including some bravado jumps off the upper deck into the water, before we headed homewards. The breeze as we were whisked past the craggy rocks was welcome after a pretty hot day, and we were treated to another sight of dolphins, although this time they paid us little attention as they were busy corralling a school of fish for their dinner. 'Magic', as Mike would say.